Al Jazeera

Government neglect drives Mexico’s poppy farmers into drug trade

Guerrero residents say they’re ‘not bad people’ but poor roads and infrastructure leave them with few alternatives

GUERRERO, Mexico — Berta is adamant that her long-running family business — the cultivation of poppies whose paste is processed by Mexico’s drug cartels to make heroin — is one of necessity, not choice.

“It’s the smugglers who get rich. Not us. We’re just slaves. Imagine how much they’re making,” she said as she surveyed her family’s small plot of land and simple shack. She agreed to be interviewed on the condition her real name not be used, to avoid retribution from drug traffickers or the government eradication program.

Deep in the heart of the Sierra Madre in Guerrero state, her family’s fields of countless red flowers sit alongside many more tended by her small community. Every harvest — there are three a year — armed men arrive to take the raw poppy sap to laboratories, where it is refined before being smuggled north to the U.S.

The farmers blame the Mexican government for their role in Mexico’s multibillion-dollar drug-trafficking industry. As he tends his fields, Berta’s son Arturo (also not his real name) argues that his community — isolated by poor roads and worse infrastructure and living in makeshift shacks — has few economic opportunities.

“We’re not bad people. But of course, if we didn’t grow this, the smugglers wouldn’t have anything to export,” he said. “We’re complicit in this violent drug trade not because we want to do this but because we have to do this. If me and my family didn’t grow this crop, we wouldn’t have enough to eat or pay for school.”

He says the choice is a simple one in this remote region: either grow illicit drugs or grow avocados and peaches. But poor roads means fruits and vegetables spoil before reaching market.

While the former option is more lucrative, it’s not without its challenges. Arturo complains that the criminal gangs exploit the poor. The farmers must accept whatever price they are given when the men arrive to buy; trying to negotiate would be suicidal.

“I can’t go to market myself or demand a price, because they rule with weapons and violence,” he said.

Even so, while prices for marijuana are falling, 100 grams of opium paste scraped from the flowers can fetch over $100. At harvest time a farmer can collect three times that in one day.

‘It’s not about bringing more police. It’s not about eradicating poppy fields. It’s about creating, finally, the conditions for sustainable development.’

Antonio Mazzitelli

UN Office on Drugs and Crime

Opium poppy cultivation in Mexico was began more than 100 years ago. But according to Antonio Mazzitelli, the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime representative for Mexico, Mexican cartels are seizing a new opportunity.

“Mexico has always produced opium, morphine and black-tar heroin for export to the United States,” he said. “But nowadays Mexico is able to produce and export white heroin, which is much better than black-tar heroin. And also, the demand for heroin in the U.S. market has increased, particularly in the last one and a half to two years.”

He warned that the increase in U.S. demand for heroin could roll back recent gains made against drug-trafficking organizations. He credits Mexican authorities with some success over the last three years in reducing the operational capacity of criminal groups like the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels, and he says less cocaine has been transiting through Mexico.

“The marijuana market is also falling apart,” he said, “but the resurgence of the heroin market in the U.S. might offer these criminal organizations a second opportunity.”

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, poppy cultivation and heroin production in Colombia have decreased steadily since 2001, and Mexico has become the No. 1 supplier of heroin to the U.S.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration told Al Jazeera that Mexican criminal organizations now control smuggling and distribution of virtually all heroin in the U.S., including that produced in Colombia.

Poppies are more lucrative than peaches or avocados in Mexico’s poor southern state of Guerrero, where farmers can make up to $300 a day collecting opium paste at harvest time.
Al Jazeera

Overlooking cornfields on one side and the more lucrative poppy fields on the other, Luciano Mozo Guzman works the soil just as his ancestors did.

“Drugs have been like a business to the poor. Why? Because we’ve had nothing to help us survive, to live,” he said. “There has never been support from the government for the poor.” A member of the Supreme Council of the Towns of the Filo Mayor, Mozo is trying to promote development projects in the region such as roads and new large agricultural programs.

Guerrero’s deep and myriad social and economic problems gained global attention last year when 43 students went missing near the town of Iguala, allegedly at the hands of local police working with the Guerreros Unidos cartel. Almost 100 people were arrested, including Iguala’s former Mayor José Luis Abarca, who was charged with kidnapping in January. Already a hotbed of protest before the case, ever since, there have been regular clashes between police and the students’ families and their supporters in towns like Chilpancingo. Their primary complaint is that the local, state and federal authorities are corrupt, are complicit in crimes and have failed to respond to them. That charge echoes a perennial one in Guerrero, that they are a population long abandoned by their governments.

Those feelings came to the surface again when Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto failed to go to Iguala to meet with the students’ families. In December he traveled to Guerrero but went to the tourist city of Acapulco, not to Iguala. Referring to the case of the students, he said his government “should investigate its institutions to avoid a repeat” of what happened.  

During the visit, Peña Nieto admitted to the scale of the cultural and economic challenges to transform Guerrero, saying, “To the shame of Mexico, organized crime has reached into some parts of this land and done so for many years and has co-opted our own authorities and police.” He announced an economic recovery plan for the state, focusing on boosting tourism, Guerrero’s main source of income, in places like Acapulco and promised improved infrastructure and new roads.

As for the rural Guerrero communities with a long history of poppy cultivation, Mazzitelli said the U.N. is holding serious talks with the Mexican government about alternative development.

“There must be a guarantee of transformation by which, yes, the farmer gets less money but he gets security. He gets schooling for his kids. He gets a pharmacy. He gets a road through which he can market his crop,” Mazzitelli said. “It’s not about bringing more police. It’s not about eradicating poppy fields. It’s about creating finally the conditions for sustainable development.”

He believes Mexico’s government at least now recognizes what it must do, even if it hasn’t done it yet, and points to the success of countries like Pakistan in reducing opium production.

“We know that Guerrero is one of the main producers of opium poppies and intervening in communities where poppy cultivation is among the main sources of income might finally start to break the chain, break the vicious cycle that through cultivation attracts criminal organizations, generates a local market, which generates violence and instability.”

Up in the mountains, Guerrero farmers are still not convinced this administration is ready to do what others have not. To win their confidence, the government needs to show them that it begins with their most basic needs, said Humberto Nava Raya, head of the Supreme Council of the Towns of the Filo Mayor.

“We need roads, basic education, health,” he said, “so that then we will be truly able to think about true alternatives and leave behind us the growing of illicit crops.”

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